One of New York City's premiere contemporary voices, Laurie Anderson has returned to recording with Life on a String, her first studio release in seven years. The twelve-track album -- which Anderson released through Nonesuch after two decades with Warner Bros. -- continues the dark, existential musings of 1994's Brian Eno-produced Bright Red. With help from such art-scene mainstays as percussionists Joey Baron and Vinicius Cantuaria, producer Hal Willner and keyboardist Pete Scherer, Anderson weaves a cohesive blend of strings, synths, drum programming and confessional lyrics into a very current, subdued album. The CD is rife with the middle-aged ponderings of the woman who introduced the concept of performance art to the American public, including ruminations about New York ("Washington Street," "Statue of Liberty"), sustaining her relationship with Lou Reed ("Broken") and the meaning of life ("Life on a String"). The death poem "Slip Away" represents a particularly keen synthesis of new electro with symphonic arrangements.
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Ironically, one of the tracks, "Dark Angel," is an emotionally charged attack on the Information Age and its dependence on machines and consumption, set against a Van Dyke Parks-conducted bed of strings. In her typical storyteller fashion, Anderson illuminates the modern inability to "wrap my arms around" the complexity of contemporary culture; the solution, revealed by a dark angel, is to head for a cafe with beret and pencil in hand and write a manifesto. The song harks back almost directly to Anderson's first underground hit, 1981's "O Superman (for Massenet)," included last year on Warner Archives' The Laurie Anderson Anthology. (The phrase "Here come the planes" from that early track is especially disquieting.) It also places Anderson squarely in the camp of her mentors: old-school Beat poets like William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, who railed against Manhattan's diffusion of impersonal, corporate culture around the city and around the globe.
Released just weeks before the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center, Life on a String is eerily prophetic about the state of affairs at the beginning of the 21st century. "One White Whale," a selection from Anderson's 2000 stage piece, Moby Dick, opens the disc with beautiful, Sufi-inspired vocal modulations that are purposely reminiscent of Middle Eastern music. It closes with the title track, wrapped around these disturbing lyrics: "Some people know exactly where/ They're going/The pilgrims to Mecca/The climbers to the mountaintop/But me I'm looking/For just a single moment/So I can slip through time." As Anderson's commercial output has decreased over the last decade, her intuitive and thoroughly modern commentary on the world around her has deepened.